Scary Terms and Phrases, When Language Works: Part I by Dillon Freed


Most of the time, political language fails in terms of accuracy and grammar. Consider: “collateral damage” which actually describes innocents incidentally lapped up into the mouth of death during war, but the sound of the words seem only to remind one of a shaky tailpipe after a fender-bender. Or try: “man-made disasters” which are what terrorist attacks have been (ironically) labeled by the gender-neutral obsessed ruling class – these words are sophoric and veer close to Charlie Brown teacher’s style of speech.

And even when the phrases are not altogether dysphonic, they retain their Orwellian (in the negative aspect) mien. To adduce: “honor killings” which sound somewhat like an “honorable death” but describe the most horrible practice of killing Muslim women who are too “Western” or commit adultery or any other slew of ridiculous charges; “Arab Spring” which was supposed to refer to the awakening of a democratic movement in the Muslim world but more exactly alluded to a brief warm spell in an ongoing “Arab Winter”; or try,  “rules of engagement” (in an American context) which sounds like the title to a terrible romantic comedy, but really denotes the terms upon which our soldiers are hog-tied before entering battle with our enemies; and that’s, as they say, to name a few.

Of course, sometimes we are given good phrases for things, phrases that are not euphemisms or incorrect or totally lacking any poeticism, but for some reason, still don’t quite work well enough. For instance, consider the phrase “virginity test” which were conducted in Egypt during the “Arab Spring” – it accurately describes the occurrence alright, but the phrase doesn’t evoke the proper imagery of a woman’s legs being pried open against her fierce yet petrified will and the vagina probed with evil hands to see if the hymen is in place.  Or take the term “genocide” to describe the killing of people based on ethnicity. It’s good, fancy even. But the best phrase for this phenomenon was coined by Henry Morgenthau, American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, he called genocide, “race murder.” That is substantially better; perhaps there can be no better. Everyone should get it instantly. (On an aside, and though it is not a rule, it appears that using all or some Anglo-Saxon Germanic words, instead of solely French-Latin, usually works best to avoid confusion and give terminology the proper “zing.”)

Now, in that light, if you care, here are some phrases, I have come across recently, that though they may not quite hit you like “race murder” does, they more or less suffice in elucidating, the usually ineffable emanations of evil in our world.

During, or around the same time, of Operation Odyssey, in which NATO forces bombed Libya to stop imminent mass murder, reports surfaced, of what were called, Gaddafi’s “Snatch Squads.” A “snatch squad” typically refers to a police maneuver in which ring leaders of a riot are detained- I heard the phrase several times while I observed the ridiculous Occupy Wall Street rabble. Each of these “rebels” feigned an anxiety of being arrested, but it was quite clear to everyone else that they were all quite agog at the chance to be “snatched.”

And it was just that – hearing these affluent morons (morons a carefully selected word – seriously) claim the police were going to “snatch” them up that made me shudder when I heard the phrase in the context of old state of “three cities” (Tripoli). Suddenly the phrase intimates something much worse than spending a night with the NYPD.

Before Gaddafi died and his loyalists lost power, they snatched up hundreds, if not thousands of men, women and children from the streets – these souls were never heard from again. In this case, if the rebels were good guys or not, matter not.

Now try this: “Pluck Squads,” “Take Squads,” “Kidnap Squads,” “Terror Squads” – none of these quite work. Even “Death Squad” such as we hear of in parts of Columbia and other nefarious realms is not as sinister as “Snatch.” Something in it implies a being “lifted clean out from the stream of history.” (Thanks Mr. Blair)

Next: Peter Godwin, a native of Zimbabwe, wrote a book which attempted to capture the essence of Robert Mugabe’s insane and cruel rule. The phrase which struck me was also the title of his book: The Fear. Godwin describes “The Fear” or chidudus, the local name for it, as such: “When those who survive, terribly injured, limp home, or are carried or pushed in wheelbarrows, or on the backs of pickup trucks, they act like human billboards, advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny, bearing their gruesome political stigmata. And in their home communities, their return causes ripples of anxiety to spread.”

Imagine living in the (nation) state and state (of mind) of Fear. This Fear is at once the personification of Mugabe’s personality – no question. But it is more than that too. It is the disintegration of Mugabe as a distinct person, and the transformation of his essence into a ubiquitous, pervading spirit of terror.

Godwin is not the first to pick up on the pervasive haunting that certain men create, Kanan Makiya wrote of Saddam Hussein creating a similar atmosphere in Iraq in his The Republic of Fear. European Jewry in the 1930s and 40s, Tutsis and Bosniacs in the mid-1990s, among others- they all felt “The Fear.”

Next: Just a short time ago, I came across a chilling term: “Ghost Killers.” These Ghost Killers or Shahiba, are a group of men who were/are on the loose in Syria, hounds of hell sent by President Assad to kill those who were rising against his dictatorship. Again, like Gaddafi, it matters not if those rising up against him were noble or not – it matters only that his intention was to terrorize, maim and kill all those who disapprove of his presidency.

We have pictures of Assad’s “Ghost Killers”, and it took no paranormal investigators to get them on film – these narcissistic apparitions posted the photos of themselves online.

The images show men with torsos that are shaped like a dog’s nose and then magnified 100 times the size of the tip of a canine’s snout, arms that appear like plump edamame beans sleeves again magnified to Venice beach body builder proportions. These wraiths are utterly swollen from steroid use, proudly displaying long, frizzled beards and posing with various weapons – they look like the chief-guard who hunts down Aladdin in the Disney movie. In one image, one of these bastards has a tattoo of the dear leader, Assad, on his arm.

Now, these Ghosts may have physical bodies, but they do share other properties with “real” ghosts. For they move outside the reality of most, they are not bound by law or morality. They are men whose brutal government has loosed them from all known consequence.  They may kill, rape and kidnap – without any walls ever holding them in.  It is one thing to hear something akin to “Ghost Killer” in a comic book or movie or even of a gangster, but quite another to realize that such beings really do exist, or exist and work for your insane leader. If America, or any other aides the Syrian uprising, the operation should be called “Ghost Busters.”

Snatch Squads, The Fear, Ghost Killers. As odd as it may be to say, I am quite the fan of these terms – they detain your attention without misleading you (“Arab Spring”, “honor killings”), they make you want to know more without boring you (“collateral damage”, “rules of engagement”). They are even poetic, and there is something archetypal about them. In our time, it seems these are examples of some of the few times that language truly works.